Reviewed by Alicia Glass
Review Rating: 8.5
The film rather incongruously begins with a modern-day showing of a fabulous hanbok (traditional Korean dress) wedding dress, apparently mistakenly attributed to the only royal tailor of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, Jo Dol-seok. After allowing the audience to admire the hanbok a moment, the movie moves right into what actually happened so long ago in the royal courts.
The King and the Queen of the courts have the rather standard relationship of many asian royal courts, which is to say, almost none at all. Because the King ignores his Queen, there are no children either. Jo Dol-seok has tailored clothing for three generations of Kings before finally working his way to the head of the Sanguiwon, the official department that makes royal clothing, and is justifiably proud of this fact. Dol-seok has very little in the way of imagination, innovation, and wants nothing to do with new ideas, so when the Queen asks him to repair a sacred robe belonging to the King that was accidentally burnt, Dol-seok has to say no. It’s against all tradition and for him, is akin to sacrilege. But the Queen is going to get into serious trouble if she doesn’t do something about the King’s robe, and this is how she meets Lee Gong-jin.
Gong-jin is young, handsome, reckless and headstrong. He also seems almost divinely inspired to make clothing, bright joyful colorful clothing in very non-traditional styles, for all women, not just the women of the court. The film credits Gong-jin with the newfangled bell shape of the hanbok and the introduction of brighter, happier colors. And at this point his fame has become fairly wide-spread, so much so that the Queen, desperate to find a tailor to fix the King’s robe, contracts Gong-jin to do the job.
This of course leads to all sorts of further palace intrigue – Gong-jin falls in love with the Queen, Dol-seok decides to let himself be used as a pawn in a plot to get rid of both the Queen and Gong-jin, and the King lets his need for loyalty outweigh proper good sense. As the film nears its climax and Lee Gong-jin is soon to be executed for his non-part in the plot with the Queen to overthrow the King, Dol-seok realizes he actually had a kindred spirit in the younger, flashier tailor, and comes to regret his part in the whole sorry mess. Not enough to let history remember the proper fashion designer to the Joseon dynasty, of course, but still. And thus, this being a rather traditional Korean film, the whole thing ends in tragedy, leading to the shameful execution of Lee Gong-jin, in sorrow and lamentations.
The film itself is sublime and I simply cannot say enough good things about it. Not because of the gorgeous well-replicated costumes, the lavish sets or even the very fine acting, but because of the manner in which the movie approached the fundamental need to make art. Like Jim Morrison of the long-remembered Doors band, the tailors in the film are tormented and at the same time delighted by the art they create with their own two hands. The absolute need to create art, as fundamental as breathing and even sometimes more important than that, speaks to the beautiful soul of every artistic person, famous or not, in the whole world. In this case, as with many other artists we lost far too soon, Lee Gong-jin and even his stilted counterpart Jo Dol-seok literally made art until someone died, and as tragic as that is, it is still a gorgeous and long-lasting testament to their artistic spirit.
Be mesmerized by the evolution of the Han-bok on Amazon Prime Video now!